Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Routines Rock

Centering our "Groundhog Day" kids in our multitasking worlds.

Nate, the young father of 30-month-old Seth, had participated in a research project of mine that focused on co-parenting issues unique to preschoolers. He loved his first-born “more then he’d ever loved anything,” but he’d felt “out of my comfort zone” for most of Seth’s life. Then, it changed.

“Doc, we just saw this movie that explained everything you’ve been trying to get me to understand about routines and toddlers. Now I get it!” The movie was Groundhog Day. The lesson was that repeating the same routines prepares us for changes, which we can then handle better. Life with young children is nothing if not change, often at a pace that confounds us slow-growing adults.

Many parents cherish the belief that if they could just get the schedule under control, things would calmly glide along with a gentle push, but most of us can’t ever quite get the right agenda set to the right timeline. Young brains and bodies are less interested in learning logistics than they are in mastering the new and uncharted when they are full of energy, then savoring the precious familiar routines and relaxing as they reboot for the next adventure. None of this fits into any timetable I’ve ever encountered. Children’s brains are building a good foundation based on routines of good old comfortable and predictable games, books, rituals and meals. All of these strengthen neuronal connections between learning centers in the brain, which will then be able to handle the added weight of the next level of complex new learning, both emotionally and intellectually.

In general, waking up, eating, playing, sleeping and then doing it all over again is the infrastructure of children’s routines. The sequence matters more than the time allotted to each activity. Familiar soft toys or blankets, foods, toys, games, songs, diapering routines and bathing routines all smooth the journey for both the child and the parent because they are comforting and restorative. When things happen in an expected and organized pattern, children learn what to anticipate, and this helps the children feel secure when they are crossing the threshold of change, as they do every day. It also supports their own belief that they can try new things despite upsets and rough spots, whether they are trying a new food, surviving the holidays, spending time with a new peer, managing a bus trip across town or moving to a new residence.

  • Routines need some stretch, so don’t be dogmatic, and be playful. Our preschoolers loved family picnics in their play spaces;
  • Talking with children about routines as “just the way we do things,” can reduce power struggles over who is the boss of what happens next in their day, including when to go to sleep;
  • As the children learn the rhythm, parents can back off a bit so that the children can enjoy the fullness of being in charge of themselves for a while, but we all learn the price, especially over the holidays, of backing off too far. Flexibility is appropriate, but the sequences rule;
  • All this can make it seem that the earlier routines are established, the better. Paradoxically, it isn’t. It takes time and a lot of watching and input from spouses and friends before we can see patterns emerge, and they will if you feed your children when they are hungry, change them when it’s needed and put them to bed when they are tired. Soon, your child will be eating at the time when she is usually hungry, seeking a play partner at the time when she is usually social and drifting off at the time when she is usually sleepy. Bingo, this fairly predictable pattern has become a routine. To push your own agenda too early means you will spend far more time managing meltdowns than you would have spent building and maintaining routines;
  • It’s the unpredictable changes that come along in life, such as deaths, friends moving away, sicknesses or the loss of a pet, that are the hardest times for families. So, practicing manageable change in the structure of routines helps families prepare for those inevitabilities.

Routines rock.

More from Psychology Today

More from Kyle D. Pruett M.D.

More from Psychology Today